Asphalt. Huge, heaping obsidian piles of oozing rock and tar, steaming tons of it mounded up on the banks of Flushing Creek in Corona, Queens. More than a million pounds of asphalt a day. This may well be the greatest legacy of the city’s innovative, controversial, visionary, despised Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.
Completed in May 2010, the Harper Street asphalt plant produces 250,000 tons annually, much of it made from recycled rocks ripped from roads around New York. If asphalt could be considered state of the art, this would be it. The plant saves the city $5 million every year and keeps thousands of asphalt trucks that would be importing the road rock off the streets, preventing more potholes as a result.
And that is precisely the point of this plant, one of two the city now owns: to repave and repair the streets more efficiently and sustainably. It is one of hundreds of programs launched in the past four years by Ms. Sadik-Khan and the mayor, part of a $4.3 billion capital campaign. That is more than many states have spent over the same period and as much as had been spent in the first six years of the Bloomberg administration, meaning essentially a 50 percent increase in road spending under the current commissioner.
“One of the things I’m most proud of at DOT is that we’ve really increased our commitment to the basics, even while we launch new programs,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said in an interview last week. “We’ve got an unprecedented commitment to the road and bridge network.”
The Department of Transportation oversees more than 6,375 miles of surface roads in the five boroughs and 787 bridges. The Port Authority is in charge of four, the M.T.A. seven. Along those roads and bridges, there are 500 miles of on-street bike lanes, more than half of which have been built in the past four years. Of the 775 projects funded under the current capital plan, only a handful involved pedestrian plazas, like the closure of Times Square and the rest of Broadway, or bike lanes, like the litigious route along Prospect Park West. Some of these projects are so cheap, they do not even make the budget. All told, DOT has spent $19.2 million on plazas and $15.8 million on bike lanes. That is less than 1 percent of all capital spending over the past four years, or about as much as the $30 million DOT spent on the one asphalt plant.
“She has done more for drivers than anyone since Robert Moses,” one transportation professional told The Observer. Rarely is that comparison a complimentary one—Janette Sadik-Khan has long been dubbed Mrs. Moses, but it is by those who disagree with her programs and (often very successful) tactics. There is a perceived imperiousness, a sense of know-it-all-ism, my-way-or-no-highway. DOT points to the thousands of community meetings held each year for its new programs, and the poll numbers that continue to grow in the department’s favor.
No matter. The critics still honk their horns and file their lawsuits. Meanwhile, the same driven demeanor of Ms. Sadik-Khan that has seen so many bike lanes built also goes about the dirty, dismal work of so many bridges repaired and so many potholes filled—400,000 last year alone. With all the angst and ink spilled over bike lanes, the department and its supporters lament the fact that drivers have yet to appreciate all the benefits made on their behalf.
“She’s been very successful, which can be beneficial but also controversial if people do not agree with you,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at N.Y.U. “Essentially, she’s taken a very shy agency and put it out there on the front pages.”
Part of the problem for DOT is that its sexiest projects—literally, think of all the models in skirts and hunks with no shirts biking around the city—are the most controversial. As for the public plazas, like Times Square, they feel like tourist amenities more than anything, even as they protect natives from taxis, which, by the way, are whizzing by a little bit faster than before thanks to all the street redesigns. “So much of what DOT does is invisible,” said “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, a former DOT traffic engineer who now runs his own consultancy. It is at grade or beneath it.
The biggest project so far undertaken actually had a bit of wow factor to it. The $669 million replacement of the Willis Avenue Bridge connecting northern Manhattan and the South Bronx involved floating the 350-foot-long, 2,400-ton middle section down the Hudson, where it was installed by barge. DOT invited the press out for the occasion while also posting pictures to Flickr and videos to YouTube of the floating span.
In the end, there was only a day or two’s worth of stories, compared to at least a year’s worth of reports lambasting bike lanes. All the while 70,000 people drive across the bridge each day, compared to the roughly 17,000 people who commute by bike across all five boroughs.
Take the repairs to the Brooklyn Bridge as another example. At $508 million, it ranks near the top of DOT’s infrastructure spending list. For years the tabloids had complained about the bridge’s poor maintenance. In June 2010, Vice President Joe Biden came to town to tout the project, which had gotten $30 million in federal stimulus, on top of another $192 million in federal funds. (Capitalizing on her experience at U.S. DOT, Ms. Sadik-Khan has been a master of winning federal money, which comprises roughly 30 percent of the capital budget, with another 5 percent coming from the state.)
A critical piece of infrastructure and a beloved landmark were being fixed all at once. And what do the papers write about? Construction barriers creating narrower walkways, where tourists and bicyclists are forced to mix it up. Therein lies the challenge for DOT—nobody notices the job the department is doing until it screws it up. Such was the case of the Interstate-35 bridge in Minneapolis that drew so much attention to New York’s infrastructure after it collapsed in August 2007, just four months after Ms. Sadik-Khan was appointed.
“She’s had no disasters, which is pretty amazing,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Not just freak accidents, like when the Staten Island Ferry crashed, but mistakes, like when Commissioner Chris Lynn reversed the Queensboro in the ‘90s. It led to massive gridlock. So far, Janette has made almost no mistakes.”
She may have misjudged the politics on Prospect Park West, for example, but short of a few parking complaints, traffic is flowing fine, with no noticeable change in travel times. “Almost everything Janette has done is good for drivers,” said Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “Everything that gives people more transportation choices means fewer people choose to drive. Isn’t that a goal for drivers?”
In total, the city has spent $2.6 billion on bridge maintenance in the past four years, and all bridges are now either in a state of good repair or being worked on to reach that point. Beyond the two aforementioned bridges, $386 million went to the Belt Parkway bridges—talk about outer-borough love. Add to that list the $175 million reconstruction of the Staten Island Ferry bus ramps and parking lots, all of which came from federal stimulus funds, the largest such project in the state. Tens of millions more have been spent at numerous stretches throughout the five boroughs: Borden Avenue and Queens Boulevard in Queens, East Fordham Road in the Bronx, Grand Army Plaza and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Richmond Avenue on Staten Island, and whole swaths of Lower Manhattan. More than 3,600 miles of roads have been resurfaced at a cost of $633 million.
And $801 million has been spent on new traffic lights, street lights, signs and road markings and paint. Some of these are the same old stop signs, but just as often it is an energy-efficient light pole or a high-tech program like Midtown in Motion, a $1.6 million real-time traffic monitoring suite that adjusts traffic signals throughout the day to help clear jams. “It’s dynamic controls for a dynamic city,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said. And yet when the Bloomberg administration recently mulled red-light cameras to catch scofflaws, the story made the wood of the Daily News, albeit with a cyborg mayor. “Mike to Drivers: Smile!” the copy read. Ignoring the safety and savings from automated enforcement, the tab played up the fees and nanny-state fear.
Even something as simple as paint can become transformative in her hands. On Church Avenue in Kensington, not far from where this reporter lives, the street was recently repaved, and afterward two new white stripes ran down either side. They marked not a bike lane—though they are frequently used as such—but more of an extra-wide parking lane. Before, there was effectively one and a half lanes on either side of the street, where anxious drivers would jostle around each other, honking and speeding. Now, cars respect the lines, traffic has slowed and the streets feel considerably safer. It is the same as on Prospect Park West, where going from three lanes to two has slowed a thoroughfare once described as a drag strip.
This does not mean people are getting to their destinations more slowly, as many might think. Studies have shown that reducing speeds from 40 MPH in urban settings to only 20 MPH has little impact on travel times; it simply means less time waiting at stop lights. New York may be at the end of hurry-up-and-wait driving. For pedestrians, though, the difference is huge. At 40 MPH, 70 percent of accidents are fatal. At 30 MPH—the legal speed limit in New York—only 20 percent of accidents are fatal.
This is part of the reason the department has overseen such a decline in traffic fatalities, as well. From 393 pedestrians, cyclists and motorists killed in 2001, the number was 271 last year, up slightly from 258 the year before. That averages out to roughly a reduction by one-third. “No number of traffic fatalities is O.K., but it’s crazy these stats don’t get more play, especially given all the press the NYPD gets for keeping murders down,” one DOT official said. Even if drivers believe themselves to be impervious, as Mr. Moss puts it, “Everyone is a pedestrian at some point.”
Yet who has benefited most from these safety improvements? Bicycling and motorcycling fatalities have remained roughly constant at 19 and 35 annually for the past 10 years. Pedestrians have faired better, with 193 deaths in 2001, compared to 152 last year, a decline of 21 percent. Driving fatalities, meanwhile, have fallen from 146 to 61 the past two years, a nearly three-fold decline.
Even when she is working on behalf of drivers, Ms. Sadik-Khan has had a hard time winning them over. “Filling potholes, fixing the Brooklyn Bridge? None of those things speak to the core problem,” Robert Sinclair Jr., manager of media relations at AAA New York, told The Observer. “They’re Band-Aids on gaping wounds.” It would seem Mr. Sinclair agrees with the administration as to the deficiency of its streets, but he sees too much focus on bikes while taking for granted what changes have been made. “Smooth roads are what we’re supposed to have,” Mr. Sinclair said.
Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has gone so far as to pen songs mocking Ms. Sadik-Khan, and he maintains that she attacks drivers despite the outsized investment she has made for them. “I firmly believe that this DOT, under this commissioner, is committed to stigmatizing private automobile use and has deliberately used bike lanes and other measures to accomplish this goal,” Mr. Markowitz said in a statement. “I do not object to all bike lanes but it remains a fact that less than 1 percent of all commuters use their bikes for transportation.” By that logic, DOT is actually underspending on bicycle facilities.
Not all car-centric outer-borough pols dislike Ms. Sadik-Khan. She has found an ally in Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro. “I have the highest respect for her,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “That does not mean we agree all the time, but there’s always an opportunity for give and take.” He points to Father Capodanno Boulevard, where an on-street bike lane was removed, despite outcry from advocates, because another had been built in a neighboring park. Meanwhile, DOT installed its first smart signals in the borough, among other innovations. “I have 5 percent of the city’s population, but 18 percent of its registered motor vehicles,” Mr. Molinaro said. “She has been an asset to Staten Island, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Have you ever heard of a beloved Transportation Commissioner?” Mr. Schwartz asked. “It’s not a particularly well-regarded job. While a lot of drivers may dislike her, she is fortunate that so many other New Yorkers are in the Sadik-Khan fan club.”
The fact remains, there may only be so much she can do. Mr. Schwartz explained that going back at least to the 1950s, midtown traffic has been constant: If it moves above 7 MPH, everyone rushes into the nearest car or cab, and it slows down again. If it falls below 5 MPH, people start to abandon automobiles. There is nothing to be done about it, except maybe closing down 34th Street so buses become a viable option. “New York is not a happy place to drive,” Mr. Schwartz said.
“We need to define a new approach,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said. “It can’t be just one perspective from behind the windshield. We need to innovate and find new solutions because we can’t pour any more concrete, we’ve run out of room.”
And yet even that may not be enough, may never be enough. “The streets of New York are always going to be a site of controversy because people are fighting for public space,” Mr. Moss said. “It’s not about bikes or anything ekse, it’s a matter of the streets always being contentious. When you have 8.2 million people in a very small space, it’s bound to get competitive.” His solution? Widen the sidewalks.